During decades speaking on radio, appearing on his Life Is Worth Living television series, and writing dozens of books, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen made certain to highlight the Four Last Things — death, judgment, heaven and hell.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day provide the perfect backdrop for a small fraction of what he taught in his unassailable way on these four last things — plus purgatory.
With death and judgment leading the list, Sheen sets the scene, noting how Our Lord gave us the Eucharist, his flesh and blood, which implies the resurrection of the body. First, we face the Four Last Things.
The route begins early. “A happy death is a masterpiece, and no masterpiece was ever perfected in a day,” Sheen said. People fear death chiefly because they “are not prepared for it.” On the other hand, “Death is a beautiful thing for him who dies before he dies, by dying daily to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.”
The soon-to-be beatified archbishop counseled, “When one leads a mortified life in Christ, death does not come like a thief in the night, taking one by surprise. We die daily; thus, we rehearse,” because “it is appointed unto men once to die and after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Then comes particular judgment. “You are a person and are individually responsible for your acts,” Sheen explained. “Your works follow you.” The general judgment at the end of the world takes place because you “worked out your salvation in the context of the social order and the Mystical Body of Christ; therefore, you must be judged with all men.”
Sheen described how, at the resurrection of the dead, the soul will have a body conforming to the soul’s spiritual condition. It “will be glorious, if the soul is saved; and miserable, if the soul is lost. … Our bodies have shared in the condition of our souls and will share in their glory or shame.”
The Particular Judgment
Archbishop Sheen explained that the particular judgment will be “an evaluation of ourselves just as we really are.”
This judgment will lead to the next destination, he advises: “Three possible destinies await you at death and judgment: hell, which is pain without love; purgatory, pain with love; and heaven, love without pain.”
During life there seems like “several persons in us” — who we think we are, who others believe we are, and who we really are. It’s easy “to believe our press notices and publicity” instead of judging by “eternal truth.” But, he said, we “are what we are not by our emotions, feelings, likes or dislikes, but by our choices or decisions.”
Our particular judgment will be made “on the way we lived, on the choices we made, on the things we loved.” Sheen prompted serious contemplation: “Do not think when you go before the judgment seat of God that you will argue a case. You will plead no extenuating circumstances; you will not ask for a new trial or a new jury; you will be your own judge! You will be your own jury. As Scripture says, ‘We will be condemned out of our own mouths’ (Matthew 12:37). God will merely seal our judgment.”
If Our Lord sees in a soul in grace “the resemblance of His nature,” like a parent who sees family traits in his or her child, then “seeing in our souls His divine likeness, He says to us, Come, ye blessed of My Father I have taught you to pray ‘Our Father.’ I am the natural Son, you the adopted son; come into the Kingdom I have prepared for you from all eternity” (Matthew 25:34).
But the soul in mortal sin, without grace, doesn’t “possess the family traits of the Trinity.” Seeing no likeness in that soul, Our Lord “can only say those terrible words which signify no recognition: I know you not!” (Luke 13:25).
The soul in mortal sin, “dead to divine life, casts itself into hell just as naturally as a stone released from my hand falls to the ground,” Sheen explains. The spotless soul “full of divine love and without any temporal punishment due to its sins is like a bird released from its cage; it flies to heaven.”
Venial sin is another story. The soul says, “Give me time to clean up.”
Clean Up in Purgatory
“The judgment of God is final,” Archbishop Sheen said, “but there is a merciful chance to be cleansed of sin by those who die in a state of grace, but have not yet atoned for all the punishment due to sins.” Therefore, God created purgatory.
Sheen compared it to “something like a darkroom for developing film,” treating the film (souls) “with burning acids so its hidden color and beauty may be revealed.” Souls must be purified to be brought into the light.
Most of us, he said, have left deeds undone, words unsaid, good intentions not fully carried out, time wasted and idle words to account for.
“Justice demands that nothing unclean, only the pure of heart, shall stand before the face of the pure God,” he said, also assuring God won’t “sentence such souls to eternal loss. A provision was made for making up for our failings if we die in the state of grace after death.”
In purgatory, God’s love tempers his justice, giving “time to retouch these souls with His Cross, to recut them with the chisel of purification; thus, they might fit into the great spiritual edifice of the heavenly Jerusalem.” God “plunges them into purifying places so they can wash their stained baptismal robes to enter into the spotless purity of heaven.”
We on earth can make up for losses to loved ones. Sheen pointed out purgatory “enables us to atone for our ingratitude, because our prayers, mortifications and sacrifices make it possible to bring joy and consolation to the ones we love. Love is stronger than death; hence, there should be love for those who have gone before us.”
By praying for those poor souls in purgatory, including our family and friends, we help remit the debt they owe to God. “Certainly God cannot be unmindful of a wife who offers her merits to the captive soul of a husband waiting for his deliverance. Surely the mercy of God cannot be deaf to the good works of a mother who offers them for the liberation of her offspring …” Sheen writes.
Hell of a Place
Hell isn’t mentioned much anymore. “If there is any subject which is offensive to modern sentimentalists it is the subject of hell,” Sheen stressed, adding that “our unsoiled age wants a Christianity watered so as to make the Gospel of Christ nothing more than a gentle doctrine of goodwill, a social program of economic betterment …”
“Few today believe in either the devil or hell,” he added. “Why don’t they believe in the devil when so much is devilish?”
Looking at Scripture, he enumerated our Blessed Lord spoke 15 times of hell and 11 times of eternal fire, describing it as “the place where worm dieth not and the fire is not extinguished” (Mark 9:48).
“To disbelieve in hell is to assert that the consequences of good and bad acts are indifferent,” Sheen emphasized. “Have you ever noticed saints fear hell but never deny it, and great sinners deny hell, but they do not fear it — for the moment. The devil is never so strong as when he gets a man to deny there is a devil.”
Yet at death such a soul can’t do without God. “But God is not there.” The soul knows it can’t be happy without “life, truth and love, which it has eternally rejected, and that is hell.”
In shortened form, Sheen described hell via our human experiences. “Hell is the mind eternally mad at itself for wounding love,” he said. “You hated yourself most when you hurt someone you loved. The souls in hell hate themselves most for wounding perfect love,” and “they can never forgive themselves. Their hell is eternal, self-imposed unforgiveness. It is not that God will not forgive them, but they will not forgive themselves.”
Then, sinful rebellion requires divine justice. “Hell is a place where there is no love. Could anything be worse?”
Hell begins here. Heaven does, too.
Heaven Is Not Far Away
There isn’t much we know about heaven, Sheen noted, quoting 1 Corinthians: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that love Him.” Still, the saintly archbishop offered familiar ways we can use to get a most minute peek into heaven.
To understand, we’ve got to begin with time, he said. “Have you ever noticed that your happiest moments have come when eternity almost seemed to get inside of your soul?”
He notes that “your happiest moments are those when you are not conscious of time at all. There is a hint of what heaven must be. It must be outside of time, where you can possess all joys at one and the same full moment.”
Sheen explained this also shows people are making their heaven, or hell, here on earth. He met people who were in hell, and “people with heaven in them.”
Love is the key to heaven, the good archbishop emphasizes.
“If you ever want to see heaven in a child, look at that child the day of first Communion. If you want to see how much love is related to heaven, just look at a bride and groom at the altar on the day of the nuptial Mass. Heaven is there because love is there. I've seen heaven in a missionary nun who was giving herself among the lepers.”
Sheen wanted us to think about some of life’s great moments, “when you really enjoyed the thrill of living. Then go back and think of a time when somebody told you a truth or you studied and understood a great mystery. Then go to another moment of your life, when you had the great spiritual ecstasy of love and wanted it to go on and on.”
The insightful archbishop listed many of nature’s beauties, beautiful architecture such as cathedrals, things he imagined including a world with never a pain, disease or death, “a world wherein every man would live in a castle, a world in which winter would never come, and in which the flowers would never fade, and the sun would never set … there would always be peace … a constant enjoyment without satiety … a world which would eliminate all the evils and diseases and worries of life, and combine all of its best joys and happiness …”
He wanted to take this moment and raise it to where it “became the Father,” lift this truth “to infinity until it became the moment of the ecstasy of truth, namely, the Son,” and internalize the moment of love so it “became the Holy Spirit. That would be a dim suggestion of heaven.”
To be perfectly happy Sheen reminded us that we’ll have to have our bodies (at the resurrection of the body), which have “done a great deal for the salvation of our souls. There we will meet, in the communion of saints, all of those who were our friends and mates on earth.”
Whatever hints we have, the truth remains: “Heaven is perfect life, perfect truth and perfect love.”
That is our holy goal.
Archbishop Sheen admitted only one fear — the fear “of losing divine love, which is Christ,” he said. “The reason I want to go to heaven is because I want to be with love. There’ll be many surprises … there will be one great surprise, the greatest of all — that you and I are there. I will see you in heaven!”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.